I didn’t blog about the debt ceiling because… ugh. The idea that the Republican party would hold the country, and indeed the world economy, hostage is unimaginably awful. The idea that, in the midst of a recession barely worse than the Great Depression, we’re talking about cutting government spending is also absurd. It’s a failure of governance and of leadership. Far from being ashamed, Mitch McConnell is gloating about it.
The Left is riled up, and righteously so. The problem is that most of the ire seems to be directed at the President, with talk of a primary challenge and so forth.
This is absurd.
Not that I think the President handled this situation perfectly. I think he was too quick to dismiss the gimmicky options folks dreamed up. Not that I think he should have actually employed them, but I think threatening to skip Congress and raise the debt limit on his own might have gotten people back to the negotiating table. The idea of a couple platinum trillion dollar coins is nonsense, a legal-but-absurd move that would only deepen investor concern about America’s monetary future. The same goes for the dubiously legal 14th amendment option (in which the President would simply assert a right to continue selling bonds because “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, …shall not be questioned,” an argument undermined by the fact that the debt must be “authorized by law,” and also because the administration’s lawyers thought it was unconstitutional).
Actually employing either course of action would probably have spooked the markets into the same panic everyone wanted to avoid, but I wish the administration had been smarter about strategically refusing to rule them out, a deterrent for Congress’s nuclear option of a forced default on US debt. The President played by Queensbury rules, which let the Republicans mug him, and the country.
But here’s the thing: Any other Democratic president would face this. The Republicans are using every procedural lever to stop the President from getting political victories. They want the White House back, and they want to gum up the works until they have it. They don’t want the President to get judges on the bench, or to fill up the Federal Reserve, or to get cabinet appointees confirmed. They damn sure don’t want effective consumer advocates installed at the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
So what’s a frustrated Democrat to do? A primary challenge to the President is dumb. If President Obama wins, he’s had to waste a bunch of money defending his left flank, and his opponent has spent the year laying the groundwork for subsequent Republican attacks (unless the challenge is very strategic, and exists as a way to let the President get back on the campaign trail and get back into fighting shape for the general election). The Democratic coalition would be even more split and internally divided, the nominee (either one) is weaker, and the Republicans have a better shot. If the President loses, it’s worse, because whoever challenges the President will be at an even greater financial disadvantage in the general election, having spent more and burned more bridges. This all sets aside the question of who would even step up for that fight.
But here’s the thing: if a different Democrat got elected in 2012, and faced the same Congress, we’d see the same stuff happen. Every bill would get filibustered, the House would hold up any debt limit increases, demanding that Social Security and Medicare be sacrificed for any sort of stimulative spending program (unemployment insurance, for instance) or tax increases that would pay for such programs. If Hillary Clinton had been elected in 2008, she’d face the same nonsense today. Ditto for John Edwards, but of course, he’d be tied up in Clintonesque hearings over his affairs and secret lovechild. And if John McCain had been elected, we’d have had no stimulus, no healthcare bill, no CFPB, no repeal of DADT, no requirement that health insurance fully cover birth control, no investments in green technology, no scientific integrity policy promulgated throughout the federal government, no Lily Ledbetter act to end pay inequities, and none of the dozens of other good and important policies that this President and the Democratic Congress managed to pass before the end of 2010.
So what’s an angry Democrat (or moderate Republican) to do? Elect a better Congress. The President can only do so much. The bully pulpit doesn’t actually have much effect on the public. President Obama has done many of the things a President can to advance progressive goals (we can quibble here and there, but the main complaints involve stuff Congress did or didn’t do – but the more legitimate critique is of his choices of economic braintrust). Kevin Drum (linked above) makes the case, indeed, that the President has been remarkably effective at advancing progressive goals:
On the specific issue of the debt ceiling, the obvious thing Obama could have done differently was to insist that it be included as part of the lame duck deal last year. But for all the grief he’s gotten over this, it’s worth keeping in mind that Obama got a helluva lot out of that deal. In the end, he got a food safety bill, passage of the START treaty, a stimulus package, repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and a 9/11 first responders bill. Maybe it would have been worth risking all that over inclusion of a debt ceiling increase, but that’s hardly an open-and-shut case.
What’s more, Obama also won passage during his first two years of a stimulus bill, a landmark healthcare bill that Democrats had been trying to pass for the better part of a century, a financial reform bill, and much needed reform of student loans. And more: a firm end to the Bush torture regime, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a hate crimes bill, a successful rescue of the American car industry, and resuscitation of the NLRB. Oh, and he killed Osama bin Laden too.
Sure, we all could have wished for more. Everyone has different hot buttons, and I particularly wish that financial reform had been stronger and that Obama had somehow managed to get cap-and-trade across the finish line. I’m also unhappy with the extension of the Afghanistan war and Obama’s Bush-like policies regarding national security and civil liberties. Still and all, in two years Obama has done more to enact a liberal agenda than George Bush did for the conservative agenda in eight. That’s not bad, folks. All things considered, I’d say Obama is the most effective politician of the Obama era. And the Bush era too.
Do you want a bigger stimulus? The President can’t do that without Congress. Want Elizabeth Warren to run CFPB? The President needs a Congress who will confirm her when he nominates her. Want to put a public option back into the healthcare debate? Elect a Congress that will take up that bill and the President will sign it gladly. Want reform of unionbusting laws and policies? So does the President, but good luck getting it through this Congress. Want a bill that will reduce carbon pollution and move us toward a cleaner, safer, and more economically secure future? The President’s with you, though didn’t fight as hard for that as he probably could have on that bill, but it was wussy Senate Democrats who killed it, and you need a much better Congress before you’ll get anything real on that front (and if it had a shot in Congress, you bet the President would have been more involved). Want stronger Wall Street reform, mortgage reform, and another shot at the cramdown debate? This Congress won’t do it, but the President is on your side. Want an end to the debt ceiling nonsense, and the obsession with spending cuts to pay for tax cuts for the rich? The President certainly does too, but Congress makes those choices.
So here’s my advice. Go to ActBlue, find folks running against the most reactionary assholes in Congress, and fund them. Or fund folks running against folks who aren’t quite so bad, but who vote the wrong way and would be easy to beat.
A meaningful primary campaign against a sitting president would probably cost hundreds of millions of dollars, all with a likely effect of no meaningful change. Spend that money on every swing Senate seat and 50 swing House races, and you could flip Congress. Spend it forcing lead teabaggers to defend themselves at home, and you open up space for challengers to go after swing seats. Fund Republican primary opponents to teabaggers, and fund GOP moderates against teabag rivals. Fund Blue Dog Democrats (unless they have a primary challenger who could really win the district).
But don’t just spend. Get out and volunteer. If you’re pissed at the President and don’t want to volunteer for his campaign, I understand and that’s fine. But go support a Democrat (or sane Republican) in your neighborhood. Phonebanking and canvassing on that local scale is hugely rewarding, and has higher payoffs than most of what goes on in Presidential races. If you do this, you will change things. Build a local progressive infrastructure, train your friends to canvass for progressive causes, and you’ll have something important to work with for years to come, whoever wins the elections in 2012. And every voter you swing will remind wingnuts that their crazy votes and rhetoric have consequences back home.
Enough with the circular firing squads. It’s time to move forward. (Troll repellent: That’s not to say we shouldn’t criticize the President, or that he’s the greatest President ever imaginable, or that we shouldn’t keep pushing the administration to do the stuff we want them to do. But criticism from people who demonstrate political savvy and sense is likely to be more compelling than rants from people who misunderstand the different powers granted to the executive and legislative branches.)